Every Friday night, my daughters and I light the Sabbath candles. There are different traditions for how many are lit each week. The “original” tradition or perhaps one taught in many homes, is that a woman lights two. There are many “two”s in the Sabbath – related on some mystical level to the commandment to “zachor” and “shamor” – to remember and to guard the Sabbath day.
Some families have the tradition of having a Jewish girl, from the age of 3 light one candle; others say girls don’t light until they get married and make their own homes. When you marry, all traditions converge, and the newly married woman begins lighting two.
With the birth of her first child, traditions separate again. Many continue lighting two for all their lives, others add a candle…one for each child. With time, I now light 7 candles each week…my original two, and five more for each of my children. I have one young daughter at home – she lights one. When my married daughter comes over, two more are added. It’s a beautiful corner of our dining room; the candlelight is so amazingly gentle. Shabbat has finally come.
Many years ago, not long after I had moved to Israel, I began lighting oil instead of candles. I saw these glass “candles” and thus I began lighting oil. Over time, the stores started selling the oil in colors – gentle purple, blue, yellow. Depending on which child fills the oil last week, I can end up with gaudy or inspiring…but that’s something else I wanted to write in a second.
First, a conversation that I hope won’t be considered a breach of trust. I met with a mother recently who had lost a son in the army. We talked of many things, what she was doing when she heard the news, how her life has gone since. She asked about Elie and smiled warmly. Sadly, we realized that her son and mine must have entered the army together, because both would have been leaving in just a few weeks.
She showed me pictures of her children, many including the son who died recently. She too gave birth to three boys and two girls. Lovely, beautiful, handsome children. Without thinking, I asked her, “how do you answer when people ask you how many children you have?”
“What would you answer? What do you think?” she asked me. And the answer came so clearly…five. She would answer five – all are her children and always will be, even if one is lost to her.
Why do I write of this? Because I didn’t ask her how many candles does she light. The answer, if it is her tradition, would be 7, like me.
And one other tradition I have. Each week, I try to remember to have the oil refilled as soon as the Sabbath ends. I try to ask different children to fill it each week (thus the range from gaudy to inspiring and everything in between). My middle son takes great care to mix the colors; my youngest son is in the traffic light stage and though personally, I’d prefer one consistent color for all, I let him have his way. Elie usually doesn’t want to…and if he will, he expects someone to hand him a color.
There is a custom to do something small each day to remind us that the next Sabbath is coming; that peace to our homes is but a few days away. Perhaps you’ll wash curtains on Sundays or change the sheets or do something and so it goes each day. By Wednesday, you are already thinking what you can cook. Thursday you make sure your house is clean; Friday you cook.
For me, it begins immediately Saturday night by refilling the candles. This lets me see, each day, that we are waiting.
Each week, I ask one of my sons to fill the candles – usually based on which one I believe won’t be home. It is my way of having them here…just a bit. Last night, after the Sabbath ended, I handed Elie the bottle of blue oil and asked him to fill the candles again. He did…and all week, I will have that picture in my mind till next week comes and I light them.
To remember and to guard – this is the meaning of the candles…and the soldier. He remembers his promise, he guards his land and each week, we light candles that remind us of who we are as Jews, as Israelis, as God’s people, as parents. Elie filled the candles that will shine light in our home next Shabbat.